Lively Spirits of Halloween: All Hallow’s Eve, All Saints’ Day, All Souls’ Day and Dia de los Muertos

THURSDAY, OCT. 31: Halloween (All Hallow’s Eve).

FRIDAY, NOV. 1: All Saints’ Day.

SATURDAY, NOV. 2: All Souls’ Day.

NOV. 1-2: Day of the Dead (Dia de Muertos).

FEW AMERICANS know the terms Hallowmass or Triduum of All Hallows, which refer to the traditional Christian remembrance of the saints who have passed from this world. Instead, for millions of men, women and children across the United States and around the world, the end of October brings the secular celebration of Halloween.

That’s 158 million souls in the U.S., to be exact, according to the annual Halloween survey by the National Retail Federation (NRF). This year’s report by the trade group is fueling predictions of a slight reduction in American festivities. The NRF says the 158 million celebrants, this year, will be down from a record 170 million last year. Experts claim that recent economic anxieties have American families hesitant about how much they will spend for candy and colorful costumes.

Nevertheless, the total outlay for this sugar-fueled blast are enormous! This year, “celebrants will spend $2.08 billion on candy and $360 million on greeting cards,” the NRF reports. Halloween now is “second only to Christmas in terms of spending on decorations; Americans will spend $1.96 billion on life-size skeletons, fake cob webs, mantle pieces and other festive decorations.”

What are typical Halloween customs today? We’ve now got annual tracking of the most popular Halloween habits by the NRF, which advises retailers on what to stock. Here are the most popular customs nationwide: “There are a variety of ways Americans will celebrate this year, with handing out candy being the most popular (72.0%). Others will carve a pumpkin (44.2%), visit a haunted house (20.3%), take their child trick-or-treating (31.7%) and decorate their home and/or yard (47.5%)—and 3 in 10 (30.9%) will make the most of the holiday by attending or hosting a party.”

Two well-established trends, this year, reported far and wide in news media: Producing pet costumes now is a multi-million-dollar business. And, TIME magazine reports: More money is spent on adult costumes than on children’s costumes—and your choice of costume may say a lot about your personality on this one flamboyant day, each year.


Among the millions of adults who will dress up, this year, “costumes are communication devices,” writes TIME’s Halloween columnist Kit Yarrow, who chairs the psychology department of Golden Gate University. In her TIME article, Yarrow describes the meaning of several Halloween costuming trends, including a wide array of sexy costumes popular especially among college students and young adults.

More interesting, Yarrow writes, is the ongoing popularity of “dark side” costumes: “Vampires, grim reapers, devils, witches and other powerful, predatory characters are top costume picks across all adult age groups this year, as they have been for the past five years. Yes, dressing up as something spooky and scary is traditional for Halloween. But there may be something else at work here. In a political and economic era where people feel less certainty and control in their lives, there’s a certain allure to being a character that’s unburdened by empathy and more likely to be the perpetrator rather than the victim.”


The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops still reminds the faithful that All Saints is “a holy day of obligation.” The Feast of All Saints gives “Catholics the opportunity to honor all the saints, both those solemnly recognized by the Church and those whose holiness of life is known only to God and to those who knew them.”

The Catholic Bishops provide the readings for the Solemnity of All Saints on their website. The readings include the famous passage from the Bible’s book of Revelation in which John is given a glimpse of what Christians consider the communion of saints surrounding God—”a great multitude,  which no one could count, from every nation, race, people, and tongue. They stood before the throne and before the Lamb, wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands.”

On the following day, November 2, all the dead are remembered in Catholic liturgy of All Souls, for which the bishops also provide readings.

These Christian festivals date back more than a millennia to the age when church leaders were eager to eclipse ancient pagan festivities such as Samhain and Feralia. The establishment of a Triduum of All Hallows was largely a Western Church response to traditions that remained from Roman times. (Our Holidays & Festivals column also is covering Samhain, a festival with a growing number of celebrants around the world.)

Christian churches that look to the East already have celebrated this festival, which is connected to Pentecost in the Orthodox world and is called Sunday of All Saints. In our coverage of that Eastern Orthodox holiday in June, we reported in part: “The Sunday of All Saints always falls on the first Sunday after Pentecost—owing to the belief that the descent of the Holy Spirit (Pentecost) allows humans to rise above a fallen state and attain sainthood.”


This hugely popular festival has spread from Mexico to many other parts of the world, mainly because of the creative folk art associated with the holiday: skeleton-themed costumes, decorations, dances and even toys for children. According to Wikipedia, the Mexican festival is usually described as a regional celebration of both the Catholic All Saints and All Souls holidays, spanning both November 1 and 2. However, “scholars trace the origins of the modern Mexican holiday to indigenous observances dating back hundreds of years and to an Aztec festival dedicated to the goddess Mictecacihuatl.”

In a recent Huffington Post column, Dr. R. Andrew Chesnut, professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University, along with researcher David Metcalfe, wrote about the widespread and complex celebration of Dia de los Muertos these days. They wrote, in part: “Halloween and the Mexican death trinity of Day of the Dead, Catrina Calavera (Skeleton Dame), and Santa Muerte (Saint Death) engage millions of North and South Americans in rituals that reconnect us with our own mortality.”

They add, “While in the United States, All Hallows Eve has taken on the darker image of Halloween, with haunted houses, horror movie themes and the dead returning for trouble rather than tradition, in Latin America and Europe, where Catholic influences have remained strong, the first and second of November continue to hold their ancient ties to festivals associated with sacred remembrance of the influences found in the still living past. In Mexico, Dia de los Muertos … is a time to reconnect with deceased friends, family members and ancestors in a festive spirit of remembrance and celebration.”


The spiritual realm separating the living and the dead has fascinated Christian writers and artists for centuries. In 1945, Charles Williams wrote his final mystical novel about All Hallows’ Eve. For a time, Williams was a member of the famous group of authors and scholars known as the Inklings, a group that included C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Among the Inklings, Williams penned some of the most imaginative contemporary fiction, including this 1945 novel that explores what relationships might exist between the living and the dead. It opens with an eerie scene in which a dead woman finds her spirit, once again, wandering through London.

Want something less esoteric? The Internet Movie Database (IMDB) has multiple lists, created by various IMDB users, recommending great Halloween movies. One of the biggest is this 100 Great Halloween Movies list.

Too scary? A lot of online movie buffs are offering kid-friendly lists of great Halloween movies. One of the best is a new posting in BuzzFeed, called 20 Movies to Watch with Your Kids  This Halloween. Want a more substantial authority picking the movies for your family? Try this Parenting list of 19 Best Halloween Movies for Kids.

(Originally published in, an online magazine covering religion, spirituality, values and interfaith and cross-cultural issues.)